The Oresteia to Good Breeding: How Justice Evolves

By Olivia Ek, Production Dramaturg (Good Breeding)

Mark Rothko. The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, 1942, oil and graphite on canvas.

Robert O’Hara’s Good Breeding, as a contemporary adaptation of a Greek classic, is concerned less with keeping the Oresteia’s plot completely intact and more concerned with exploring the themes Aeschylus laid out, in an updated context. In our contemporary American theatre, activist art functions to comment on our current political moment. Ancient Greek theatre, however, was not so much commentary on politics as it was an integral part of it. Athens in particular saw theatre as a way to have a conversation about timely sociopolitical problems. The City Dionysia festival of Athens, in which Aeschylus’ trilogy of tragedies entitled the Oresteia competed in the year 458 BC, was one of the most important venues for this type of civic debate.

Athens in the 5th century BC was undergoing a major shift in terms of justice. An early form of democracy had already been established, and with that came the court reforms that are reflected in the Eumenides. The first two plays of the Oresteia, Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers, are rooted in familial drama, which is classically the backbone of Greek tragedies. The cycle of murders and the characters’ ‘blood for blood’ mentality is also driven by the supreme agency of the gods. Orestes’ trial in the Eumenides signals the changing times. The Athenian jurors absolve Orestes of the old justice of the gods and usher in an official, humane legal system.

This context gives a new meaning to playwright Robert O’Hara’s decision in Good Breeding to have the female characters taking the lead. Justice had changed from a familial matter, where women have some power as the mother, to something to be settled by a government institution, where women have no power. Given the weight that theatre had in Athens, this story does not just reflect these cultural changes. It can be inferred that through this play Aeschylus was advocating for a formal legal system and the subsequent diminished role of women.The women of the Oresteia were part of a story that contributed to decreasing their role in society. Electra, Clytaemnestra, Helen, and Cassandra were not able to object to having their names used in a story that contributed to their oppression. The women of ancient Greece, mythic and otherwise, traditionally had their stories told by men. In our upcoming production of Good Breeding, the best we can do is examine these myths with a contemporary feminist lens, and create something brand new with what we find.

Please join us at the Emerson Stage production of Good Breeding, playing February 20 through 23 in the Semel Theater. $12 tickets ($8 with Emerson ID) are available at

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